Saying goodbye to pen and paper

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My latest blog post for Harvard Business Review has provoked a strong reaction to the idea of saying goodbye to the paper notebook. Here’s my own take on the experience of giving up on paper and pen.

Alexandra Samuel

Those 25 characters, comprising a tip, a total and a signature, now represent the lion’s share of my handwriting. That’s what I realized during a recent conversation with a colleague, when I asked how he takes notes…meaning, of course, what software program did he use. I didn’t even consider the possibility of his actual answer: a notebook. You know, a lump of paper bound together so that you can scratch at it with a pen. Yuck.

In all honesty, I have never liked holding a pen. What I hated about college exams wasn’t the studying or the race to get out the answers: it was the way my hand ached by the time I got halfway through a test. I tried The Artist’s Way but I loathed the morning pages because unlike a touch typing on a keyboard, pen-and-paper writing can’t keep up with the pace at which ideas actually flow.

As soon as I got a laptop light enough to carry, I braved the glares of my fellow conference-goers so that I could take my notes on my computer, where I could actually read them; my chicken scratch is barely legible, even to me.

Even though I took more and more of my notes on a computer, I still used paper notebooks as my day-to-day repository. After all, who can bother launching Word just to capture a phone number? Or hunting through all those folders of files just to find that brief thought you had during last week’s meeting? For these unavoidable writing situations, I carried a medium-sized, graph-ruled, hard-bound notebook, cycling through a new one every three months. Sometimes I referred back to my meeting notes or latest inspirations, but the notebooks were mostly a garbage can: a place to throw words, information and ideas, knowing that they’d get ground up and lost.

Then came VooDoopad, a one-stop notetaking program, and later, Evernote. When I started using Voodoopad in mid-2005, my notetaking was instantly transformed: instead of opening individual Word documents for each note, I could throw them all in Voodoopad. Better yet, I could actually find them, because unlike my paper notebooks, Voodoopad was both legible and searchable. Then I (regretfully, because I loved Voodoopad and its awesome developer) shifted over to Evernote, which offered features like iPhone syncing — meaning that I could access or add to my notes anytime, anywhere.

My four-notebook-a-year habit became a one-notebook-a-year habit, and my pen and moleskine might languish in my purse for days at a time. Then I’d find myself in a meeting where I couldn’t put a laptop screen between me and my client, and out the moleskine would come (if the notes were important, I’d snap them later on my iPhone and add them to Evernote). Or I’d come up with a blog post idea over dinner — along with a first paragraph I couldn’t bear to type on my iPhone keyboard — and write it down just legibly enough to transcribe into my browser as soon as I got home. Or sometimes I’d simply run out of battery life halfway through a work session, and be forced to switch to paper.

The iPad liberated me from these final use cases for my notebook. There is no meeting where I feel uncomfortable taking notes on my iPad; not only is it small enough to feel unintrusive, but typing on a touchscreen aovid the clackety-clack of a keyboard. I have beautiful Etsy purse that fits my iPad, so if I have an inspiration over dinner, my iPad is always at the ready. And unless I’ve let Little Peanut wear out my iPad watching videogame walkthroughs on YouTube (a not-infrequent problem) it’s usually there to bail me out when my laptop battery dies.

The moleskine I’m using right now — if using is the right term for it — is filled only halfway. The first page of notes are from early 2009, and at the pace I’m going, I’ll be able to use it until about 2014. (A lifespan that puts Apple products to shame: I suspect I’ll go through half a dozen iPhones, four iPads and at least two Macbooks in the same amount of time.)

With my notebook relegated to such occasional use — if memory serves, the last time I needed more than one page of it was during a blackout at the Hollyhock retreat center — it takes some real digging to think of circumstances in which I actually pick up a pen. I no longer bother to carry one, in fact, and it’s only once or twice a month that I find myself wishing I did.  I still write on our grocery list (though I’ve been thinking about replacing the pad of paper with a half-dead iPhone that would let us access our list online); I still write the occasional comments on a colleague’s document (though I prefer to load it on my iPad and annotate it there); I still need to fill in my daughter’s reading log for school (though she mostly fills it in herself because she’s still at the stage where writing a few words is a form of learning). Together, these various pen-on-paper scenarios might account for twenty or thirty words’ worth of writing each week.

And that leaves the Visa slips. I use my Visa for almost everything, which amounts to thirty or forty transactions a week: let’s call it 750 characters. I figure that’s twice as much writing as all the other scenarios put together.

Of course, my most recent Visa card has a micro-chip: more and more of the time, I enter a PIN and skip the signature altogether. 750, 650, 550…I feel the written letters slip away. With them goes the memory of my grade 3 teacher, patiently baking my first handwritten story into an “antique” manuscript. I sever the mimetic tie to the eighteen-year-old girl who filled the pages of a journal with her first heartbreak. Out of practice at reading my own scrawl, I can no longer decipher the notebook my husband and I used during our first weekend as lovers — a weekend when I lost my voice and relied entirely on writing.

These are the losses that accumulate through our transition to a new world, a new set of tools, new ways of working and new ways of remembering. At any time I could choose to pick up pen and paper once again, to forego legibility and searchability in favor of the serendipity of what gets recalled and what becomes indecipherable. But I have no romantic fantasies about sitting at a sidewalk café in Paris, sipping coffee and writing in longhand; that world is gone, or going, and my paper notebook isn’t going to reveal Paris or the world as they are today.

Instead, I picture myself at that same café, iPad in hand. It’s a lovely spot, charming and a little bit hidden, but I found my way back there because I jotted down the address in Evernote after stumbling onto it last year.  Downstairs is the same dark stone room that has served patrons for more than two hundred years; upstairs the stone is interrupted by windows big enough to let in light and wifi. And there I sit, tweeting and blogging and sharing my notes with the world in real-time.

15 Comments on this site

  1. Nilofer Merchant

    Honestly, Alexandra – I wish you had written THIS as your post over at HBR. It’s more thoughtful. 

  2. Michaelanthonysmith1

    That is almost word for wor what I was planning on posting – thank you!

  3. Heidi May

    I agree with Nilofer – but the conversation that has unfolded is definitely very interesting!

  4. Lisajohnsonfitness

    Written from this point of view it’s personal and simply talks about a personal journey from paper to digital.  It’s not judgmental, or pointing fingers.  Yet you were aggressively defending yourself earlier today over at HBR.  My guess is if you’d written it this way they wouldn’t have bothered to publish it and publishing it the way it is has backfired for both you and HBR.  As I said over at HBR, what did you learn today, what will you take forward.  I’m not saying this in a judgmental way, but the universe did give you a message today … how will you handle things differently going forward?  I’m genuinely curious. 

  5. Dan Pontefract

    We are friends, and hopefully for a long time … so my words are sympathetic if not empathetic.

    You care. You share. You care because you share. You have no off switch when it comes to sharing, or caring which is why you are one of the most helpful people out there.

    Your family, even Rob, are the primary focus of your life. You will go to magnificent lengths to care for them. You share your entire self to ensure their safety, happiness and growth.

    You do the same for strangers, for visitors, for anyone on the planet. You do so with verve, passion, character and dexterity. You are a futurist. You are kind and selfless.

    The HBR commentators may coin you as narcissistic, but they of course are wrong. If anything, if we are to label, you are a caring, sharing masochist. That’s a good thing.

    In the spirit of friendship — although that may end now — your passion to help, share and care was slightly off kilter over at the ‘pen or no pen’ HBR piece. The words written above, however, are powerful, poetic and pragmatic. It seems there is a stark difference between the two, although your mission was the same: to help, to care and to share.

    The vitriol is unfair over in the comments because they — the commentators — do not know your true self. Your inner core — your best yoga pose — is not one of ‘my way or the highway’. It is one of futuristic aid for those that you feel require it.

    You write with literary resonance, always seeking to help. In this particular case, I’m not sure you achieved it. You intended to help but it came across as an Edinburgh street battle; you better be Catholic because if you’re Protestant all hell will break loose.

    That’s not you. I don’t for a minute believe you intended it to come across in that manner … because you are Alexandra Samuel. You care. You share.

    PS. I hope we’re still on for a cafe next Tuesday. 🙂

  6. Janet Gregory

    Excellent post Alexandra and one I completely relate to. Pen and paper to digital is a personal choice and I honestly don’t know what all the conflict is about. I am a lot older than you and I have made the shift completely. I can express and organize myself in ways that were not possible before. I can reach out and connect with the world in ways that were not possible before and most of all I have become what I tell my children to be – open to change and growth. My grandmother was a journalist, she used a typewriter when most wrote with a pen. This is no different.

  7. Arjan Tupan

    Right, to start off with: I do regularly use a paper notebook. And a fountain pen. But then again, I am an after hours poet. I don’t use them as much as I used to though, because I also am a fervent user of Evernote. However, I did enjoy reading your HBR blog post. It was on the provocative side, but I think that’s a good thing. The moment you say such things about people using pen and paper (that, remember, sometimes includes me), they crucify you, while for years now people who use electronic devices (that also increasingly sometimes includes me) have been spoken to and of in the same way. And with all the technology and software we have available now, there really is no need to say such things about those who’ve already gone completely digital anymore. Still, they’re being said, mainly by people (sometimes like me) who like to hold on to the nostalgic feeling a fountain pen and a paper notebook can give them. So, it’s good that someone holds up the mirror. Like you did. Kudos.
    I really liked both your posts. Keep writing and sharing.

  8. Dan Pontefract

     Worlds collide. So cool to see you ‘here’ Janet. When are we having that cafe?

  9. Becky Castle Miller

    This is really lovely. My Evernote holds the name of a cafe in Paris, recommended to me by a passing acquaintance last year when she heard we were moving to Europe. “If you ever go to Paris,” she said, “You must eat here.”

    For grocery lists, I receive weekly eMeals emails with a complete grocery list, meal plan, and recipes. I walk into the store, open the email on my iPhone, and buy everything on the list. Then I check Things for any items tagged “To Buy.” Shopping done, without a pen.As someone said to you on Twitter, I still handwrite letters and thank-you cards. And sometimes at the end of the day I handwrite in a journal my “To Done” list, things I did that day, which is very satisfying as well as a fun journal to go back and read. I really like pens, if the ink flows just right, so that’s an exercise I enjoy.P.S. This is a great line:(A lifespan that puts Apple products to shame: I suspect I’ll go through half a dozen iPhones, four iPads and at least two Macbooks in the same amount of time.)

  10. Becky Castle Miller

    Oh, and I’ve heard that Remember the Milk is a good shopping list app that can sync across multiple users.

  11. Scott Armstrong


    Both posts are great!
    Most posts disappear silently.
    Most bloggers would kill for that kind of reaction.
    And your author responses have been right on the mark.
    You hit a nerve. Keep on it.


  12. Meg Fowler Tripp

    I was really frustrated by your post, admittedly, though I think it had less to do with your argument than your tone.

    I found the entire thing condescending (especially your offer of “help” to those less empowered and enlightened), disrespectful of the choices others make about their working and collaborating style, and myopic.  My response was pretty brittle as a result, which is over the top, but I think I react that way any time someone positions a behavior as “better”, simply because it’s their preference or habit.  That’s likely at the root of my dislike of hyper-systematic self-help books, too — just because a certain method of doing things or dealing with things works for one person doesn’t mean it will work for everyone.

    When I’m working in collaboration with others, I do my best to be sensitive to their work styles and preferences, and to find a happy middle ground where everyone feels like they can do their best. That includes choosing the right collaboration tools, the right meeting structure and frequency, the right feedback mechanisms, and the right process of accountability.

    I find that it brings out the best in everyone to feel like they have a voice in how things go, and that people tend to be much more flexible in their approach if they feel respected as an individual, overall.

    I can’t imagine wanting my co-workers to read as pointed a case against their habits and choices as you made at HBR, even if I had a strong preference in a direction that led to personal frustration now and then.

    That doesn’t mean I don’t offer feedback, that I don’t create systems I expect those I manage to follow, and that I haven’t offered advice about being more efficient. What it DOES mean is that I embrace a certain amount of variety, I treat people like they have some self-knowledge about what works for them, and I’m willing to see a better way than my way (because there will inevitably be better ways than how I do things.)

    All that said, this post gives me so much more insight into the “why” of your HBR post, and if you and I were part of a collaborative team, would give me some good clues as to how to craft our collaborative process and relationship so that we both got the most out of it. I guess I enjoy hearing about experiences and preference more than I like being on the receiving end of a lecture.

    I’ve had my share of insults lobbed in my direction on the internet because I’ve got strong ideas and opinions, some of which surprised me because it didn’t feel like whatever I was expressing was worthy of that kind of vitriol. Ultimately, I end up shrugging it off rather than carrying it, but it’s always a bit of a surprise. If I remain passionate about what I had to say, however, and I feel good about how I said it, then I don’t change anything as a result.

    Other times, I end up learning about how I present myself, or how I present information, and end up doing it differently in the future… with a much better result. Even if it stings a bit, it’s valuable.

  13. Bojan Djordjevic

    I was one of those people leaving you bad comments. And it was for that article in particular. Found your blog in my Evernote, while doing article research for the collection phase of article research.

    The point is hands on for some people, but condescending tone is not nice.

    Best regards, look forward reading more of your content. Added you to RSS. Love the blog headline!

  14. katecm

    This is about you. I never liked a pen u say. There is an abundance of research in support of handwriting and the brain. I use penultimate to handwrite on my iPad. What I object to is anyone who decides that what is true for them. Should be true for everyone. The first sentence of your other post is the essential problem. Don’t explain why YOU suck at handwriting to justify judging everyone else. Just apologize.

  15. Cat Le-Huy

    I find this fascinating. Far be it for me to judge your choices – it’s fascinating to me because these recent years I find myself looking for any excuse not to use a laptop or iPad.

    I spend a 10 minutes in the morning writing. Sometimes with purpose, sometimes merely to excercise my penmanship. I’ve looked at how I make handwritten notes and even refined a symbolic system that makes it more efficient and structured.

    It started wi a realisation that my hand writing had degenerated shockingly. Combined with the my half baked attempts at using Evernote, voodoo pad, Ulysses, folding text, penultimate, you name it I’ve tried it.

    In the end I combined my love of stationary, wanting to pick up my penmanship and the freedom to just scribble and have ended up in a completely different place to you!

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